Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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December 13, 2009

Farmers embrace switchgrass

A farmer who has watched Mother Nature throw her worst at his crops � rain-sodden springs, drought-withered summers, Biblical hordes of voracious, marauding birds � does not lightly embrace every new agricultural phenomenon.

Glowing theories don�t hold a lot of weight to those who have too often seen the Next Big Thing in cash crops yield a bumper harvest of red ink.

That is why it is remarkable to hear the enthusiasm in the voices of Glen Young and Danny Blevins. Both are farmers in Boyd County and both are in the second year of a pilot project to grow switchgrass for use as fuel in electric power plants.

It�s cautious optimism, to be sure, but Blevins and Young think the grass, a native prairie species that is being re-introduced to Northeast Kentucky, can be a moneymaker for them.

That�s a considerable hurdle for proponents of the grass, touted both as an alternative fuel to coal and as a mechanism for alleviating global warming by taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

�That�s the age-old question for a farmer ... Is it practical? Can you make a profit? I think you can,� said Blevins, a retired teacher, environmentalist and conservationist who grows the grass on his family farm in Boyd County.

The final answer will hinge on the market value, which has not yet stabilized, said Young, who also farms in Boyd County. He does not believe switchgrass is a replacement for traditional cash crops but more a supplement. �Overall there can be a place in a farmer�s plan,� he said.

Reviving native grass

Switchgrass was among the dominant grasses in the prairies that once covered the central plains and it still can be found in some pastures and along roadsides.

A perennial, switchgrass grows to around six feet and can be harvested once or more per year for 10 years. It thrives on marginal land and can endure greater extremes of temperature and drought than some traditional crops.

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